Bigger shoes to fill

While stepping into a senior role in an organization might initially feel like stepping onto a podium in the Olympics, the truth lies a lot deeper than that. Assuming the position of a leader is not a reward, it is about assuming additional responsibility for the well-being of your company – and, hence, of your people.

As business conditions grow more complex, even – and especially – the most successful executives must continuously seek ways to stay on top of things and able to make decisions that help their companies thrive in chaos. Courtney Hamilton and Christina Woodard, Senior Managing Director, and Managing Director at The Miles Group respectively, discussed the challenges of onboarding into a senior role in a recent episode of the C-Suite Intelligence podcast.

What may come as a surprise to many is that the more senior the role in question is, the higher the derailment rate tends to rise. As CEOs today face new challenges, difficult decisions, and changing circumstances nearly on a daily basis, conventional onboarding plans simply come up short in their well-meaning attempt to make the process smooth and even unnoticeable.

The executives do not always have proper understanding of the degree of difficulty related to the given transition, and this lack of understanding typically leads to the inability to develop an appropriate onboarding plan.

However, precisely like in the process of building a house the most critical element is the foundation, successful onboarding begins with paying a special attention to that plan.

Courtney Hamilton (left) and Christina Woodard (right) of The Miles Group emphasize the importance of adequate plan in onboarding senior executives into new roles.

In onboarding, there are no shortcuts or immediate wins

Leaders typically begin their onboarding plan by anchoring themselves on the traditional idea of a 90-day process, yet it typically takes up to a year before senior executives can count on knowing everything there is to know about the organization and their role in it. While first impressions do matter a lot, there is also a wide variety of critical activities that take a significantly longer time to handle properly. Leaders must diagnose the business and build alignment on the mandate – both with their board and their peers.

Connecting with different stakeholders as well as building the core team and engaging with them as the new leader is equally important – which means that instead of hurrying themselves into the new position, leaders really should slow down and take adequate time to think and learn. While executives typically focus on the issues they intend to deliver, the right frame quite often is to think about the counterparts and what they need.

It all starts with listening, understanding, and building sufficient depth of knowledge. This is how every senior executive stepping into a new, more demanding role, should use the first 90 days.

Which one works better – knowing the job, or knowing the organization?

Especially leaders that come from outside the organization are often expected to drive immediate change or growth, and the number one reason they are held back is that people are not aligned either with their vision or their approach. This might mean that to align with them properly, the approach needs to be edited. All in all, in external transition the leader must show exceptional humility and willingness to listen.

On the other hand, internal transitions tend to be even overlooked to a point. Everyone might simply think that since the leader has already been with the company, he or she knows it inside out – including the people, and what needs to be done to get everything on the right track. This often leads to the lack of both humility, curiosity, and desire to learn.

In addition, internal transitions almost always bring out the challenge of hard skills, especially when it comes to the top positions in the organization. When someone from the organization is lifted to the role of a CEO, it is almost evident that the person has not served as a CEO before. This means that there can be no first-hand experience – and, hence, knowledge – of what that role deep down requires.

The degree of scope change is a lot bigger in internal transitions. Due to this, they often end up being considerably bigger risks than external ones. Even knowing the people beforehand does not necessarily help, as new kinds of relationships must be built now that the roles in the organization have changed.

Trust and teamwork are the keys to success – or failure

Successful onboarding into a senior role is a matter of many things. One of the most important ones is to not get distracted by the variety of all the small details that are involved, but to focus on learning and integrating into the organization. Common sense should not be underestimated.

The role of the core team is vital, and regular follow-up sessions with them are essential. Coming together as a team will eventually determine, how well the entire alignment will go.

These sessions do not even have to be overly strategic or filled with groundbreaking brainstorming. The most important thing, especially at the beginning of the onboarding process, is to create targets – what the team is set out to do – and then check regularly if those commitments are being fulfilled.

Culture and trust-building are not one-time efforts but continuous projects. The team must have tough discussions and hold each other accountable, spend time together and really connect. That is the only way to ensure that it will eventually look like it wants to look like.

Finally, good process delivers good outcomes. Being process-oriented and diligent towards all stakeholder groups is important. Credibility is built in small doses over time by achieving small milestones in a reliable way. Once the team, process, and the right capabilities are in place, then it is the time to start driving that big change.


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